Category Archives: Useful Metaphors

The Skunk in the Basement

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase in pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, Chapter One.

Therapy can get stuck for the same reason our clients come in: their emotions are too upsetting to bear. It’s easy to vent on how unreasonably others  behave; addressing how it affected us is harder. To focus a client on their own thoughts and feelings can take sales-work. Some are satisfied with explanations of why catharsis is not therapy, how containment exercises can save them from being a wreck, or how mindfulness practice lets us both experience and contain our emotions. Others want an answer to a more basic question: why feel pain you could suppress?

Skunk, copyright 2006 by Torli

“Just stay present with that emotion. It’ll rise… peak… decline… and go trundling off through the grass.

Suppressed emotions are like a skunk in the basement. Our clients weren’t raised with wildlife-management skills, so down in the basement it went. Even though the animal can’t be seen, the house stinks from the foundation up. To experience an emotion means to let the skunk out. If we tolerate the disgusting sight and smell of Mephitis mephitis parading through our home, it can walk out the door and leave.

Most people believe little comes from painful emotions but pain. There can also be relief and increased tolerance for one’s feelings. Why accept sadness, fear or embarrassment? For the same reason we exercise, floss, save money, give birth, and eat habanero peppers. The pain fades. It’s replaced with relief, and sometimes joy.

@ 2014 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


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Anger: Spotlight, Shield and Balloon

Anger isn’t like other feelings. Spiritual leaders never promise freedom from happiness. No one gets sentenced to shame-management classes. No comic book heroes gain super-powers when they start to feel sad. Only anger gets this kind of concern and condemnation.

One quality that sets it apart is it’s inseparability from other emotions. You can feel pure joy, sheer terror or utter despair. It’s not really possible to feel angry without feeling other things as well. Three metaphors to help clients understand:

Anger is like a spotlight:

Photo copyright 2012 by Chris Cummings.When a client talks about an irritated moment, ask, “What else did you feel?” If your clients are like mine, you’ll get a puzzled look and the answer, “Just mad.” That’s not so, but part of what anger does is to make it seem that way. It’s like a spotlight in our eyes, blinding us to all other emotions. That’s because…

Anger is like a shield:

When I get that, “Just mad,” reply, I’ll supply a list of emotion words. Clients have identified as many as forty other flavors of sadness, fear and shame, none of which they were aware of until they had a reference sheet in their hand. Anger can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, meaning it probably evolved as a survival mechanism.When we’re faced by a perceived threat, (“Someone took the last slice of pizza, and therefore I may starve,”) we respond with an agitated, threatening display that lets predators (or roommates) know we’re not to be toyed with.  Evan Katz, M.C., LPC takes credit for the notion that anger shields us from the more-sensitive emotions we also feel in that moment. Predators can’t see them, because we don’t even realize they are there.

Photo copyright 2012 by Katinka Haslinger

For exceptionally angry clients, anger may function like a shield reinforced with a stone wall.

This turns into a problem when the threat has passed, (“Chill out, already. I’ll buy the next one,”) but furious thoughts still churn inside. They’re driven by the pressure of the other emotions we haven’t expressed yet. Fortunately …

Anger is like a balloon:

A balloon is a limp sack of cloth or rubber. It will swell up to an imposing size, but only when inflated with gas or hot air. If the pressure goes too high, it’ll burst into shreds, unless we pop a safety valve.  When someone explodes with rage, we can see them deflated and torn once the crisis has passed. Emotion-word lists help clients flatten out the gasbag of anger, because naming something (such as the emotions inflating the balloon) gives you power over them. Naming an emotion usually means accepting,  expressing and with luck, releasing it.

My clients’ neighbors may be puzzled by shouts of, “GUILT! DESPAIR! EDGINESS!” coming from next door. I believe they  prefer it over the sounds of irate recrimination or violence.

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under anger management, Useful Metaphors

Logging cognitions: Not “what” but “when”

@ 2011 Lynn Cummings, . All Rights ReservedIn cognitive-behavioral therapy, it’s hard to get clients to write down their automatic thoughts.  It’s easy to forget one’s pen and pad, and easier to feel self-conscious about jotting private thoughts in public. Even those who cope with those obstacles, still often wonder, “What am I supposed to write down?” It’s not that the therapist didn’t explain carefully, or that the client didn’t get the concept. Often, they hesitate because most automatic thoughts are about as profound as, “I wish this place had Wi-Fi.”

As David D. Burns, M.D.’s “downward arrow” exercise shows, thoughts that seem insignificant can grow from deeply-held beliefs. “I wish this place had Wi-Fi,” might imply a deeper fear of, “I can’t get what I need to do this report properly,  which might imply, “My report isn’t going to be good enough for the presentation,” which might imply, “I’m going to be fired.” The chain could lead to a core cognition of, “I’m a total incompetent doomed to financial ruination and abandonment by my family and friends.” A wish for an internet link wouldn’t seem worth reframing, but the fear your life will be ruined certainly does.

Clients can feel more comfortable about noting automatic thoughts if they compare them to sea spume. These tiny bubbles are no more than a few seconds’ worth of salt water and air, but they are created by powerful ocean waves. Those waves are made by winds, which blow because of the atmosphere’s heating and cooling; and by the tides, which are created by the gravitational pull of the moon.   Like automatic thoughts, sea spume is insubstantial froth that links directly back to massive forces.

Thoughts are usually emotionally loaded when they arise at a time of strong emotions. When client’s ask, “What should I write down?” it’s useful to say, “Don’t worry about ‘what’. Think about ‘when’.”

@ 2011-2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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Why vodka is like depression

Photo by Rob Nova - robnova.wordpress.comEvery week, in some major city,  a bar, distillery or festival holds a vodka tasting.  This sparks skepticism among non-aficionados, because vodka is tasteless – literally. The USA’s code of federal regulations title 27, volume 1 defines “vodka” as “neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”

Which makes it a lot like depression. Sip a screwdriver and it tastes just like orange juice, except for the ethanol kick. Depression can feel just like everyday life, only with a deadening lack of pleasure or motivation.

When a client says, “I didn’t really feel anything this week,” it helps to ask, “What has your appetite been like? How about your temper? How many hours have you slept? What all did you do this week?” Too often, the answers are, “Terrible,” “Terrible,” “Who knows,” and, “I got the kids off to school, then I went back to bed.”  Emotional numbness isn’t one of the DSM-IV-TR’s criteria, but it notes, “(with) individuals who complain of feeling ‘blah’, having no feelings or feeling anxious, the depressed mood can be inferred from the person’s facial expression and demeanor.”

Clients often assume depression always means sadness. They can know the dishes have piled up in the sink, or that formerly-reasonable family members are suddenly impossible, without recognizing these are signs that their mood has declined. They’re more alert to such shifts when they know depression can creep up in the form of a slow, steady, subtraction – the loss of energy, appetite,  interest, or hope.

Vodka is like ‘nothing’, with a kick. Depression can be a ‘nothing’ that hurts.

@ 2011 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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